"If we play tomorrow, I think Joe Hart would be our number one. I said that before the last game and he had a very good performance against Brazil. Equally, as I keep having to say to him, we are six months away and he has got to maintain form and make sure [of that] in the lead up to the World Cup."
(Gareth Southgate, Dec 2017)
"Clearly the No. 1 jersey is up for grabs. Joe has had a difficult period for his club. He had to miss game at City - David [Moyes] did a good job in making West Ham more solid and Joe found himself out of the side. He's got 74 caps and he's important. We don't know how the next eight to 10 weeks will pan out."
(Gareth Southgate, March 2018)
For a while, it seemed as though England's goalkeeping situation was barely up for debate. That even with current first-choice Joe Hart no longer playing regularly at club level, Gareth Southgate's faith in his charge was so unwavering that even conventional logic would not shift the balance.
The Three Lions manager is still clearly a big fan of Hart, but with the West Ham keeper remaining out of favour at club level for an extended period of time, a reevaluation of the pre-existing pecking order was always likely to be necessary.
And so, for probably the first time this season, Southgate left the door open in his most recent press conference for others to challenge for the problem position. A shift both in rhetoric and stance serving as the potential starting point for a new era between the sticks for England; one that focuses more on the likes of Everton's Jordan Pickford and Stoke's Jack Butland than thirty-somethings such as Hart.
What has transpired since, though, has failed to provide any sort of clarity for either Southgate or followers of the Three Lions. Ironically pitted against each other in the final Premier League fixture before the international break, neither Pickford nor Butland seized the initiative.
On paper, this was a victory for the former - with his side emerging triumphant in snowy conditions in the Potteries and relegation fears comfortably swatted aside. Yet in reality, what was most apparent was the way in which both Pickford and Butland failed to advance their claims in what was effectively an audition for the main role.
Here, with England-centric eyes trained away from the East End of London and onto the Bet 365 Stadium, the pair experienced a different kind of pressure entirely. In World Cup year, candidates for the plane see their game picked apart and the minutiae scrutinised. Neither came out smelling of roses - and justifiably so.
Indeed, Match of the Day's coverage on Saturday evening highlighted the Everton keeper's culpability in Eric Choupo-Moting's equaliser, as well as Butland's failure to keep out Cenk Tosun's winner. Both valid, given Pickford's uncertainty as to whether to come for Joe Allen's free-kick saw the Cameroon international steal a crucial march, and Stoke custodian Butland's weak hand to let Tosun's header slip from his grasp and into the corner of the net. If Southgate was watching, this game would no doubt have planted a seed of doubt as to the identity of Hart's long-term successor.
What was most worrying about Pickford's performance was the repetition of errors made earlier in the campaign. Also implicated in goals conceded from corners against Burnley and Liverpool, the 24-year-old seems at his weakest when commanding his six-yard box. Tainted by losing out to Virgil Van Dijk in January's FA Cup defeat at Anfield, what has been most notable of late has been the way Pickford has stayed rooted to his line for as long as possible to avoid the same thing happening again. Now, the criticism is that he's not been authoritative enough.
That's not to say that this has been a poor season for the big-money summer signing, however. Everton's standout player for much of the final part of 2017, Pickford's superlative shot-stopping ability has been one of the main bright sparks in a campaign that has otherwise fallen well short of expectations on the blue half of Merseyside. With his goal often under siege and little protection afforded by a porous defence, the ex-Sunderland stopper somehow managed to excel even in thumpings by the likes of Arsenal and Spurs.
Factor in his capacity to distribute the ball efficiently, and it's clear to see why the £30m man is on England's radar. These are clearly defined strengths that make Pickford a goalkeeper of considerable potential - and above-average already among his Premier League cohort - but at 24 there is also substantial room for growth.
Joe Hart 🤔
Jack Butland 🤔
Jordan Pickford 🤔
Nick Pope 🤔
Who should be England's number one?
Hart's predicament at West Ham, coupled with the lack of viable options elsewhere, means that we are perhaps expecting the Wearsider to mature much quicker than expected. Where once England keepers were expected to gain experience in European competition, now the relatively shallow talent pool requires prospects to be thrown in at the deep-end. Often, there is no transitional middle-ground between the Premier League and the spotlight of a major international competition.
The same, too, could be said for rival Butland at Stoke. Long touted as a future England No.1, a series of debilitating injuries have seen the Bristol-born player's progress stall in recent years. With fewer than two-seasons-worth of Premier League games under his belt at 25, there is still an element of doubt as to Butland's ability to keep himself fit consistently over the course of a campaign - and thus generate the momentum required to make adequate strides in the game.
What we have seen recently has been a goalkeeper still unsure of himself at the top level, with Stoke's precarious position also placing undue strain this season. Limp for Everton's winner, Butland rarely looked like someone who could dominate his area in the intense area of the World Cup. Both he and Pickford will feel as though they failed to stamp their claims on Saturday.
Further opportunities will present themselves between now and the end of the campaign - with the upcoming international double-header against Holland and Italy another chance for the pair to forge ahead in the pecking order. But if Saturday's performances are replicated over the next week - or indeed the months that follow - the chances of Southgate returning to his comfort blanket of Hart as a default setting will increase dramatically.
Under the microscope like never before, it's time for Pickford or Butland to step up if they want to make the No.1 shirt their own in Russia.